Yesterday I was honoured to be speaking at a symposium for Safe Ground, an inspirational charity that works with men in prisons across the UK, especially around issues of fatherhood, engaging them through creative arts, drama, roleplay and more.
The day was exploring how models of masculinity impact upon offending behaviour and desistance. I listened to and met some amazing people, not least the two young men who performed a remarkable short play “Outside In” that they had written and rehearsed as part of the Only Connect Theatre groups
For reasons best classified under “seemed like a good idea at the time”, myself and Professor Brid Featherstone were gloved up and placed in a boxing ring to debate some key questions over three rounds.
I hope to get some reflections on the day together soon, but for now, here’s a write-up of the notes I made, which I’ve tried to edit into something that bears at least passing resemblance to what I ended up saying.
Round 1 – What is Man’s place in today’s world?
Last year the American author and journalist Hanna Rosin loudly proclaimed the End of Men. Another, Kay Hymowitz wrote of the “child-men” who are refusing to grow up. William Bennett asked Why Men Are In Trouble. Here in London last month, Diane Abbott MP dug up that dependable zombie – the Crisis of Masculinity. At the risk of going out on a limb, I just don’t believe it. There is not crisis of masculinity. There is a crisis of economics, of employment, of industry, of opportunity, education, social welfare and public services and those are hitting some men very hard. But to call that a crisis in masculinity implies that gender identity should be able to absorb those problems, mould itself around the casualty like an airbag in a crash. I do not doubt it would help many men if they were less weighed down by the plate armour of rigid masculine expectations, but that is not where the problem lies.
There is of course not one masculinity, but many. The masculinity that really does rule the world is stronger than ever. It is seldom mentioned that even now, boys in the top social and educational quartile are doing better than ever. They’re actually moving further ahead of girls on the top courses, getting even more of the top jobs, walking out of university into higher salaries and higher status. They are the men who will go on to fill the boardrooms and the cabinet in ten years’ time.
Boys and men are not being pushed down so much as being polarised, more than ever, into winners and losers and it begins to happen when they are still only teenagers. In the bottom quartile, opportunities for secure employment and financial independence have all but vanished, removing even the option of life as traditional husband, father, breadwinner and provider. Domestically, young working class and minority ethnic men have lost an empire and not yet found a role. There is something grotesque about blaming young men for their failure to step up to the plate when the plate has been snatched from under their feet.
Having said all that, it is hugely to credit of young men today that for the most part they are not reacting by turning to crime, violence, ASB, drugs etc etc. By all measures, all those phenomena remain on the decline. The fastest growing section of the prison population is the over-60s, not the under 20s. Somehow, somewhere, we are doing something right.
ROUND 2 Do men need male role models?
If the language of the End of Men and the Crisis of Masculinity is unhelpful, there was a report recently from the Centre for Social Justice, the thinktank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, no less, which talked of a Tsunami of Family Breakdown, claiming that whole neighbourhoods in our cities have become“man deserts.” At first I thought they said “man desserts” and was picturing giant oceans of rhubarb crumble and custard. In all honesty, that would have been slightly more credible. They were actually suggesting that due to lone motherhood and the lack of male teachers, boys in poor areas could grow up with no male role models at all. It was nonsense, of course. There are plenty of men about, even in the most deprived neighbourhoods, but who are they? What do they do?
If we assume that children learn, at least in part, from observing, imitating and emulating those they see around them – and we assume that children adopt gendered behaviour in this way, then we are right to be concerned about what examples of manliness our boys see around them as they grow. I live and work, and raise my two sons in the inner city area of Manchester with a notorious history of gang and gun crime, drug problems and high crime.
Let me reassure any Daily Mail readers in the room – OK, let me reassure any hypothetical Daily Mail readers in the room, that both me and my boys see plenty positive examples of manhood. I see fathers collecting kids from school, playing with them in the park. I see men running the martial arts classes, the boxing clubs, the football clubs, the youth clubs. Our culture and media seem to revel in portrayals of masculinity that are violent, anti-social and destructive. It worries me that the likes of Diane Abbott, despite her good intentions, actively contributes to this impression that men are a negative force in society, while ignoring the other side of the coin – the many men who do amazing things both within the family and within the community.
I cannot stress enough the valuable role played by such men, in demonstrating that masculinity can mean caring, compassion, altruism, concern for others. And I cannot stress enough how worried I am that the cuts to local authority budgets are devastating these opportunities. Whither the Big Society? Iain Duncan Smith and his pals might be worried about the lack of good role models for our young men. So am I. But only one of us has the power to do something about that.
ROUND 3 – The Criminal Justice System
About two weeks ago, in Salisbury, Kent, a police sergeant was convicted of assault against a 14 year old boy in his custody. Sergeant Steven Rea grabbed the lad by the throat as he was sitting down and physically lifted him up to his feet. As he was assaulting him he yelled in his face: “What is wrong with you? You do the thieving, you stand up and be a man.”
So much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system and youth justice system can be seen in that little exchange. There is of course the sheer brutality and illegal abuse of power, but what struck me is the demand of masculinity – it is manly to take a beating, and alongside that an implication that committing a crime – a petty act of shoplifting, as it happened – was an act of masculine maturity rather than juvenile inadequacy and a warning sign of a young life already gone badly awry.
It is six years since the Corston report urged a gender sensitive approach to the needs of women offenders. In that time there has been a tangible shift across the political spectrum in how we consider the humanity and effectiveness of the system’s approach to women offenders. The challenge is to apply that same correct logic to male offenders too. In March, Justice minister Helen Grant called for more widespread and effective use of community sentencing for women offenders. I don’t disagree with any of this. I just don’t understand why the debate is restricted to women. Two-thirds of male prisoners have a reading age of 11 or less. More than 70% of have at least two diagnosed mental health conditions, 10% experienced psychotic hallucinations in the preceding year. 28% were homeless or in insecure accommodation immediately before custody.
Here we see the gender-specific issues affecting men across society – educational underachievement, neglect of mental health, economic and social isolation, homelessness, addiction – brutally concentrated at the sharpest end of the system. If I could leave this debate today with one plea in your ears, it is this: we need a Corston Report for men and we need it urgently.